A century-old community bank quietly entered the Quad-City market three years ago, but there is nothing low profile about the site where it will open its first full-service Quad-City bank branch — the intersection of Davenport's 53rd Street and Interstate 74.

Fortress Bank is transforming the former Mimzi Art & Frame store into a new branch due to open in early January. Fortress planted its Quad-City roots under its previous name, First State Bank, with a small loan production office located in Middle Road Plaza in Bettendorf.

"Banking is changing today, having a branch on every corner isn't as important now," said Lee Garlach, Fortress' chairman, CEO and principal shareholder. "Banks are closing branches... but you still need to be very visible."

High visibility was the thinking behind the bank's decision to locate among the big box retailers along the well-traveled thoroughfare. "I wanted to be in the I-74 corridor to be convenient to the whole area,"  Garlach said.

The 53rd Street location will be bank's first eastern Iowa branch as well as the first new branch to open under the Fortress name. Effective Dec. 1, the Fortress name will roll out across the bank's nine other branches. The bank's parent company is First State Bancorp. Inc., of which Garlach is the president. 

Now headquartered in Peoria, the bank traces its roots to western Illinois, where it first opened 113 years ago in 1904 in LaHarpe to serve the surrounding agricultural community. Garlach was the key organizer behind the 2008 acquisition of then Illinois State Bank of Western Illinois. The bank dropped the Western name after moving to Peoria. 

Garlach said leaders decided in 2014 to expand geographically into other states, including Iowa. 

The Davenport branch will join sister banks in western and central Illinois, including Peoria, Pekin, Macomb, Monmouth, Carthage, LaHarpe, Hamilton, Blandinsville and Colusa. It will offer a full array of banking products and services including deposit accounts, commercial and consumer loans, a drive-up, ATM, safe deposit boxes and more.

The current Bettendorf office will be consolidated into the new operation. 

In acquiring the bank, Garlach, a former CPA and bank examiner for the Federal Reserve, brought together his financial background and entrepreneurial spirit. A Quad-City resident for 21 years, he also has extensive experience in the merger, acquisition and operations of small to medium-sized businesses. He had been owner of the former United Distributors, an Illinois Quad-City beer distributor. 

Garlach has been joined by veteran bankers John "Omar" Bradley, Keith Worner, Sue Lerschen-Cassatt and Kristal Koberg Schaefer in leading the bank's commercial and mortgage lending.

"The Middle Road location was great, but we'd outgrown it," Garlach said, adding the site, across the street from Duck Creek Plaza, could not have accommodated a drive-up or ATM to make it full-service. "It was ideal for lending."

Fortress acquired the former Mimzi's from George Elliott IV and his wife, Mimzi Haut. The 8,000-square-foot building began life as a Gateway computer store.

The building proved a natural structure to become a bank with its cinder block construction, Garlach said. "We took down a couple of walls and started with a rectangular shell." 

The construction is being led by Kevin Koellner of Build-to-Suit Inc. with Greg Gowey of Architects 483 as the architect.

The branch will employ 11 existing employees, who will transfer from the Bettendorf office, as well as another five to be hired, Garlach said. Company-wide, Fortress employs about 100 people.

Bringing the brand to the Quad-Cities was based, in part, on the fact that some of the bank's investors are Quad-Citians. "I wanted to expand here to my home market," said Garlach.

Jillian McCleary, communications vice president for the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, said the new bank’s arrival fits in well with the chamber’s goal of targeting new corporate offices to locate in the region.

"It shows that they recognize the growth and potential among our businesses and the broader community," she said.

Fortress has grown to $390 million in assets from $109 million when Garlach and other investors purchased it.

"I wanted a good conservative, well-run bank and to use that as a platform (to grow)," he recalled. He expects more branches in the Quad-Cities, but said that in some of its other locations, Fortress is the only bank in the community and primarily involved in ag lending.

"That's a niche for us," he said of the secondary market locations, some of which are as many as 175 miles from a major metropolitan area.

He described the Quad-Cities as a "very strong community bank" environment. Asked if the community is overbanked, he said "As I told my board, every community worth being in is overbanked."

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